Caregivers Offer ‘Safe Space’ to Muslim Sex Abuse Victims

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Photo by Chris Beckett via Flickr

Is sexual assault especially under-reported in Muslim communities? The answer may be yes, due to a lack of culturally sensitive social services and a prevalent culture of silence and shame surrounding sexual assault within Muslim communities.

“There is a serious under-reporting of domestic and sexual abuse within general society, and this under-reporting exists more so in the Muslim community,” according to themuslimvibe.com.

In response to the question of how experiencing sexual assault and seeking treatment is a different experience for Muslim women, HEART Women and Girls co-founder and Executive Director Nadiah Mohajir told The Crime Report that in many ways the experience of surviving sexual assault was no different for Muslim women, but in other ways it was unique.

HEART works to raise awareness about sexual violence and health in Muslim communities through health education, research, training and other efforts. HEART works to combat the stigma surrounding sexual assault and is especially suited to serve Muslim survivors of assault as it is designed and led by Muslim women.

“I think that the fact that there is a lot of shame and stigma that is associated with not just sexual assault but also just sex, and that enables a silence around the topic… A lot of times Muslim victims and survivors end up feeling that they have to carry the burden and the trauma of their experience silently and privately,” said Mohjir.

“They don’t have a space to share and talk about it publicly because often times if they do they’re blamed or shamed for being in those circumstances or having that experience.

“They’re also hushed because some people are worried about their reputation or whether or not they’ll get married. So those kinds of issues are unique to a lot of faith and cultural communities.”

Muslim women have cited a reluctance to seek help after experiencing sexual assault, for culturally specific reasons and for reasons common to all sexual assault survivors. The reluctance is usually attributed to fear of bringing shame and dishonor upon the victim’s family, fear of reprisals, of not being believed, and a lack of culturally sensitive services that are targeted to the needs of Muslim women.

Including religious reflection in their services, HEART programming says it “offers participants the space and affirmation to critically examine their personal values and faith, while equipping them with the resources and skills they need to strengthen their personal agency and feel in control of their bodies and spirituality.”

According to Mojahir, other things that discourage Muslim women from seeking treatment after being assaulted include occasions in which a clerical figure is the perpetrator, in which case the victim can also experience spiritual guilt.

The victim may be too intimidated to disclose the abuse because of the perpetrator’s standing and credibility in the community, leaving the victim less likely to be believed and more vulnerable to a negative backlash. Additionally, immigration status is a common factor deterring Muslim woman from reporting sexual assault.

Research on the rates of sexual assault within Muslim communities is scarce.

“There are not that many studies on Muslim communities in particular,” said Mohajir.

“It’s complicated because even the social services agencies that do research on their clients or enroll their clients in different kinds of studies, one of the things they’re not often permitted to ask about is religious affiliation, because often times these studies are funded by government or other kinds of entities that don’t want you to collect that kind of information.”

HEART Women and Girls is currently in the process of launching a study that Mohajir says “is looking at the burden of sexual assault in Muslim communities as well as the attitudes around sexual assault and getting help, in order to get a better understanding of what are the barriers to get help.”

Organizations outside of the Muslim community can find themselves ill-equipped to treat the needs of a Muslim sexual assault survivor.

Research done by TOAH-NNEST, an organization that provides specialist services for sexual violence prevention and intervention, across New Zealand, shows that in 2016, among other things, Muslim women may be wary of accessing mainstream services because of negative past experiences with stereotyping and a general lack of cultural empathy.

The insensitivity to many Muslim women’s sense of modesty that is experienced when completing the necessary examination that a woman has to go through after a sexual assault is another disincentive to seeking care.

Modesty about the body makes medical examination and disclosure humiliating.

On HEART’s website, the organization refers to Muslim women lamenting their inability to find “culturally sensitive information and resources, and feeling apprehensive about seeking out these tools because of the shame associated with discussing sex and sexual violence in Muslim communities.”

Speaking with The Crime Report, Ayana Ali described her experience of sexual assault growing up in a Muslim community.

“I grew up having learned of several of my family members and friends around my age who had been assaulted…and adults were not finding out about this because kids were too afraid to tell their parents because of the reactions they might get and they feared they wouldn’t be believed,” said Ali.

Journalist Aymann Ismail used the experiences of Mona Eltahawy, founder of the #MosqueMeToo movement, to describe a particularly harrowing type of assault. Eltahawy was sexually assaulted while on a cherished, holy pilgrimage, the hajj. #MosqueMeToo offers Muslim women a space to relate their stories of molestation at the hands of clerics or in holy places.

Describing the experience of these particular victims, Ismail said “It had become obvious that we all had been too ashamed to speak about it—although we’d done nothing to be ashamed of obviously—because of the sanctity of Mecca and hajj. But it’s that sanctity that predators abuse. They know women will be too ashamed or scared to speak out.”

See also: Breaking Silence: Muslim Women Speak Out on Sexual Abuse.

As more women joined #MosqueMeToo and spoke of being sexually assaulted in places of worship, responses from within the Muslim community were not altogether supportive.

Aymann Ismail remembers reading the comments in response to #MosqueMeToo testimonies.

She wrote:

I found myself scrolling through brash aggression toward the victims. In sharing her story of assault, Eltahawy was met with disgusting defenses of the abuse from within her own community. Some refused to believe that such abuses could take place. One suggested Eltahawy was being paid to invent propaganda against Muslim men. 

In speaking out publicly, some fear that testimony about sexual assault from Muslim women offers ammunition for bigoted criticisms of an already maligned community, Muslim men.

Muslim women may be reluctant to voice their experiences of sexual assault in the fear that it will perpetuate stereotypes of their community, such as the perception that Islam is a culture of oppressed women and violent men.

Zareena Greewall, a professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale, was quoted in an article by Jalal Baig in The Atlantic about the Qu’ran’s inclusion of “references to sex and sexuality which are celebratory and what we might today call ‘sex positive’” She added that although these references may exist, “they have typically been interpreted by Muslims in ways that privilege men and patriarchy.”

Baig said, “While discussions of consensual sex within the context of marriage are acceptable, sexual assault and abuse of power fall outside these boundaries.”

Baig believes that the problem of suppressed action on the part of violated Muslim women might be alleviated if the faith included more women on religious speaker panels and in the mosque leadership. He argues that more inclusion would offer a supportive and protective environment for vulnerable women and would challenge the existing patriarchy.

Reconsidering how the faith is interpreted is a crucial component to promoting a more gender-equitable community, said Mohajir.

“One of the things that we’re doing at HEART is just to reclaim the faith tradition in a way that offers a more gender-equitable tradition or interpretation. If you look at the actual faith itself, the texts and the Qu’ran, in the historical traditions, you’ll actually find a faith tradition that is very sex positive and is very rooted in the concept of justice, and transparency, and accountability,” she said.

“Centuries of patriarchal interpretation and colonization of Muslim communities has had a strong impact on the way Islam is practiced.”

Other organizations doing work on behalf of Muslim survivors of sexual assault are Turning Point in New York City, a Muslim led organization founded by Robina Niaz, Womankind in New York City, which isn’t led by Muslims but which has many on their staff, and Muslim-led Monsoon in Iowa.

John Ramsey

John Ramsey

These organizations are “able to provide that cultural sensitivity and responsivity that mainstream organizations are not able to provide,” said Mohajir. “More importantly, because we have the cultural contact…we bring a level of nuance and complexity because of our lived experience.

“That being said, a lot of the work that mainstream organizations are doing is really fantastic.”

While the culture shift will take time, Muslim women who are survivors of sexual assault need culturally sensitive services, and organizations like HEART Women and Girls are providing a lifeline for victims in Muslim communities.

John Ramsey is  a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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